I’ve never heard of Mary Austin but when I saw this story (essay), “The scavengers”, appear as a Library of America offering, I had to read it, because it’s about the deserts of California – and I love those deserts. Mary Austin (1868-1934) was an early nature writer about the American southwest. LOA’s notes tell us that she moved in the literary/artistic circles of her times. She met Ambrose Bierce (whose work she admired though she was less pleased with the man!). She collaborated with Ansel Adams on Taos Pueblo, a hand produced photographic essay. And Willa Cather apparently wrote the last chapters of Death comes for the archbishop while staying in Austin’s home in Taos. Austin and her husband were also involved in the California Water Wars, that were documented so dramatically in the film Chinatown.
According to LOA, she was “among the first to write with careful attention about the desert, and to do so in a way that managed to capture its beauty without indulging in undue sentimentality”. This essay “The scavengers” was first published in 1903 in her book of essays and stories titled The land of little rain, a book that was so well received it enabled her to write for the rest of her life.
And so to “The scavengers”. It is a short essay describing, unsentimentally, the buzzards, vultures, ravens (or “carrion crow”), coyotes and Clark’s crows (or “camp robber”) which survive on the death of others. The essay opens on a vivid image:
Fifty-seven buzzards, one on each of fifty-seven posts at the rancho El Tejon, on a mirage-breeding September morning, sat solemnly while the white tilted travelers’ vans lumbered down the Canada de los Uvas. After three hours they had only clapped their wings, or exchanged posts.
She was, clearly, a careful observer. A major theme of the essay is nature’s balance which, in this case, means that when there is drought some creatures die and others (the scavengers) thrive. She graphically describes the slow death by starvation of the cattle with the buzzards waiting patiently for the end (because they will not feed until the last breath is drawn):
Cattle once down may be days in dying … It is doubtless the economy of nature to have the scavengers by to clean up the carrion, but a wolf at the throat would be a shorter agony than the long stalking and sometime perchings of these loathsome watchers.
She goes on to describe vultures, comparing their qualities with those of the buzzards, and then moves on to the other previously mentioned scavengers. She sees the raven as the “least objectionable” of them, partly because “he is nice in his habits and is said to have likable traits”. I particularly enjoyed her observation on “the interdependence of wild creatures, and their cognizance of the affairs of their own kind”. She suggests we may never fully credit this, and she’s probably right, though she’d probably also be astonished by how far science has come in the last century in terms of ecological knowledge. Anyhow, I liked the following description of animal behaviour as coyotes bring down an antelope:
… Rabbits sat up in the chaparral and cocked their ears, feeling themselves quite safe for the once as the hunt swung near them. Nothing happens in the deep wood that the blue jays are not all agog to tell …
She wonders how much of this knowledge of each other is learnt by experience and how much is taught by their “elders”. Austin surely would have loved David Attenborough – or even been him (if you know what I mean!) – had she been born a few decades later.
As I said, a main theme is the balance (or economy, as she calls it) of nature but she concludes on another idea, and that is the role of mankind. Nature, she says, cannot account for the works of man:
There is no scavenger that eats tin cans, and no wild thing leaves a like disfigurement on the forest floor.
Available online at Library of America
Originally published in The land of little rain, 1903